/   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
March/April 2006

Michelle Grifka

Lara flung the covers away with an arm and nearly fell out of bed in her rush to get to the clock, on the other side of the room. The piercing wail of the alarm had always irritated her immensely. She saw it as a shatterer of dreams, a malicious creature that waited until the very moment when you jumped into the sky to ring its sorry heart out. Hand slamming down on the “off” button, she sighed and ran her long, slender fingers through her tangled dark brown hair. Then she regarded them with fastidious interest. She decided they should be included in her list of good features, as number three, owing to the long, unbitten fingernails and delicate, almost visible bones. The other two were her eyes and her hair.

The only delicate thing about me, really, she thought rather sadly, as she tried to walk to the bathroom but tripped over a sheet that was wrapped around her ankles. She hopped on one foot, tugging the miscreant sheet off, and continued on her way.

Once there, she scrutinized herself in a tall mirror on the back of the door. Stocky, five foot five, straight, lanky brown hair, stormy blue eyes, check. Unfortunately, she thought, nothing had changed. She turned to the mirror over the sink and began to search for the easiest place to start brushing. She had long ago decided her hair was like a wild stallion. Sometimes it could be elegant, pretty, even affectionate, but mostly it was willful, impertinent, and unyielding.

Yanking her brush through the first wild snarl, she heard a small, metallic crack. She sighed and reached up to pull a tiny metal tine from the knot, then looked at the corresponding hole in the brush. There were other holes too, mostly around the edge. She felt sorry for the decimated thing, and compared it to the soft grass the stallion viciously chomps.

Paintings looking at herself

Unfortunately, she thought, nothing had changed

She brushed her teeth quickly and brusquely, and then went back to her room to grab a book before heading downstairs. The Hounds of the Morrigan. A fantasy story but centered on Irish mythology. She stroked the shiny cover as she walked down the hall. Ireland. She would be going there soon. She smiled at the thought. Maybe, just maybe, she would have a magical adventure. After all, where would one be more likely to happen than in Ireland, the Land of the Fae? She trilled three happy notes, and then found herself in the kitchen.

Lara always had the same thing. She was aware this was very unimaginative, but she told herself she could not be infinitely creative. In things that were not artistic, she always followed a set pattern or order. Even though it made no difference, she liked to think she accomplished more when in a comforting ritual.

Grabbing a bagel from the breadbox and a bottle from the fridge, Lara set them on the table. She was in the act of dipping the knife in to spread on the bagel, when she realized it was ketchup. She hurriedly wiped the knife off, screwed the top on, and put it back in the fridge. Then she pulled the right bottle out, feeling minor irritation.

As she lazily spread creamy yellow mustard on the bagel, Lara thought it was quite possible no one else in the world had the same thing for breakfast. She liked to think that at least one thing was all her own, unshared. She knew it was unusual to eat mustard on a bagel, but she was a firm believer in Pleasure Before Convention. Like Age Before Beauty, an idea she thought excellent. She both envied and despised exceptionally pretty people. She knew (or told herself she knew) she only had one remarkable feature; her cloudy gray-blue eyes. She would have loved them even more if they had worked properly, instead of making her wear glasses. Well, need them, anyway She hardly ever wore them.

Carrying her plate to the table, she put her feet on the chair diagonally across from her and began to eat. She also read, using one hand to hold the book and the other to eat. She vaguely heard her mom, Michaela, begin to stir above, and she felt a sort of sinking. She loved her mother, but she liked having the house to herself.

She finished the bagel and licked her fingers, then put down the book and carried her plate to the counter by the sink, and left it there. She climbed the wide staircase, and halfway through the hall, she met her mother.

“Good morning, Lara,” she mumbled, then rubbed her eyes. She seemed to come more awake, and smiled. “Only a day and a few hours left until you go to Ireland!”

“Yes, I know, Mom. Thank you. I’m really glad to be going.”

Her mother smiled even wider and her eyes got the melted look Lara recognized as fondness for something inanimate. Whenever she thought of a special place, object, or even idea, her eyes became shiny with moisture, and they seemed to stare right through whatever was in front of them. Lara’s mother cried very easily, but not out of sadness. Now she shrugged her shoulders in excitement and then, suddenly, frowned. “You’re still in your nightgown!”

“Yes, I’m going to change right now, Mom.” Lara slipped into her room and nearly tripped over the giant suitcase. She swore silently and glared at the thing. She had tripped over it nearly daily ever since she finished packing. She imagined it glaring back at her in a stuck-up fashion. “There’s only enough room in here for one of us,” she told it sternly, then without another word, she booted it into the hall, where it lay in haughty defeat. She lifted her chin and turned to her dresser.

Nothing much was in the maple drawers. It had all been packed, all but her least favorite clothes. That ugly T-shirt with the polka dots, and the pink shorts whose inseam came halfway down her thighs were examples. She scorned these and put on a bright yellow polo and a pink-and-black-striped skort. The colors clashed, but she didn’t care enough to change. She made her bed, and then went downstairs again.

The rest of the day passed very slowly She felt she was only wasting away entire hours in anticipation of her trip to the airport the following late morning. Each hour had nothing in it to look forward to but the bit closer to the moment she would leave. She spent a restless night, waking up every hour or so to stare angrily at the red-lighted numbers on her clock. She felt that life was being measured in minutes instead of years or decades.

Finally the hour rolled around. Chewing on a bit of beef jerky, she tugged her suitcase in short jerks towards the trunk of the black Toyota Camry her mom fondly called “that thing.” Heaving it in, she was suddenly struck by a wave of nervous doubt. Little what-ifs buzzed around in her head, and she had to stop herself from wringing her hands or cracking her knuckles.

Michaela stepped off the path and came almost skipping towards Lara. She stopped in front of her and grinned.

“You’re going to have so much fun, I just know you will. You’ll make so many friends you’ll come home wishing you were still there,” she babbled, sounding almost more excited than Lara herself.

“Mom, I’ll be gone for a month. I’ll be glad to come home,” replied Lara, annoyed by her mom’s insane buoyancy.

“Are you saying you don’t want to go?” she almost whined.

“No, no! Of course I want to go! I’m just saying I’ll miss you,” Lara explained.

“Oh, that’s sweet of you,” her mother said, clearly mollified. They climbed into the car and drove away from the small periwinkle-blue house.

Lara thought about her mother’s cousin in Ireland. Lara hadn’t even known her mother had a cousin in Ireland until, three months back, she had received a postcard inviting her to stay with the cousin and her family, or Lara’s second cousins. Lara and her mother had agreed eagerly (both loved Irish and Celtic things) and the next months were spent in anticipation.

In a short time they arrived at the airport, checked in, and were in the waiting lobby Lara stared at the ceiling, bored. Her mother read a novel; in all probability a sappy drugstore romance. Lara could imagine the characters whining platitudes of undying love and passion at each other from a “clandestine bower.” She sighed.

At last they were permitted to enter the concertina of a passageway from the lobby to the plane. Her mother kissed her tearfully, made her promise to write lots of letters, then pushed her into the corridor and watched until she disappeared from sight.

Lara found her seat in the economy class and pulled out a book from her backpack. The paranoid voices in her head whispered a myriad of horrible things sure to happen to the plane, but she ignored them.

*          *          *

Almost six hours later, she was jerked out of a cramped and uncomfortable sleep by the landing. They bumped and skidded to a stop. Lara rubbed her cheek where the seat’s armrest had been imprinted. She grabbed her backpack and slowly filed out with the rest of the passengers. Her eyelids fluttered in her effort to keep them open, and she moved stiffly.

A small group of cheerful, redheaded Irish people caught her eye. She saw an older woman, presumably the mother, holding a sign reading “Lara Accoust Landing Point.” She smiled and walked towards them.

“Look, Bridget, there’s . . . what’s-her-name!” cried a tall, thin teenaged boy to the girl next to him, who was obviously his sister.

“Brandon! Read the sign, stupid. It’s Lara,” she told him in a superior voice, tossing her red hair.

Lara looked at her and became instantly convinced she was a snob. Her expression, her perfect clothes, all screamed “Preppy snob! Stuck-up brat!” Lara wished it wasn’t so, but she prided herself on being a good judge of character. It was dislike at first sight, she thought gloomily.

The mother of the family, holding a sleeping baby in one arm, came forward and gave Lara a crushing hug with the other.

“We’re just so glad, so ecstatic, we’re so glad you’re here!” she boomed, stepping away to get a good look at Lara.

“And I’m happy, so, so happy to be here!” Lara almost sang. Brandon and Bridget snickered, but the mother missed the playful mockery. She beamed.

“Please, dear, call me Mary” She held out the baby, who had a bit of blanket in its mouth. “This is Sarah, my baby girl.”

Lara smiled. Sarah certainly was adorable, and she said so.

“Why, thank you, dear. That’s very kind.” Mary smiled back, obviously pleased.

Lara walked closer to the other children. “Hi,” she said, unable to think of anything else to say. They were her own age, and therefore dealt with differently.

“Yeah,” agreed Brandon. Bridget laughed.

“Well, he really is quite an idiot sometimes. He usually snaps out of it. I’m Bridget, I’m sure we’ll be friends, maybe really close, like the secret-sharing kind,” she chittered. Lara nodded, but she doubted it. Bridget’s bubblegum-pink hair was yet another hint that Lara’s personality and Bridget’s personality were not going to mix.

“C’mon,” Bridget jabbered. “Let’s go!”

*          *          *

They reached the small, comfortable, middle-class house very late at night. All stumbled in, weary, and as Bridget led Lara to the room they would share for the next month, she didn’t notice anything but the bed. She fell onto it, still fully clothed, and dropped straight into sleep.

It seemed like only five minutes later when loud, nasal voices penetrated her dreams. She shook herself, ready to yell at whoever was disturbing her rest. Then, when she opened her eyes, she saw Bridget’s disgustingly cheerful, pink-framed face.

“Rise and shine!” she sang brightly.

Lara wanted to do something painful to her, but instead she rolled over and pulled the pillow over her head.

“Riiiiiise aaaaand shiiiiiiine!” Bridget sang again, this time in a voice that made Lara think she might be famous in opera one day. Her only response was to burrow into the covers like a hamster.

Bridget’s response was to tackle her. Lara rolled out from the covers onto the floor, stood up, tackled Bridget, and tried to wrap her in blankets. Bridget wailed in pitiful protest. Lara let go, annoyed. Then she sat on her pillow and looked at the room.

The walls were covered with posters of pop and movie stars. Smirking blonds and spiky-haired punks plastered even the ceiling. Lara felt slightly claustrophobic. As Bridget untangled herself and went to her bed, Lara dragged her suitcase across the oak floorboards to her dresser (there were two, one for Bridget, and one for Lara) and began to unpack. After that, she grabbed a loose navy-blue T and her favorite light blue jeans and went looking for the bathroom. She found it to the left, right across from their room.

She stepped in, closed the door, and changed quickly When she got back to the room, Bridget was wearing a shirt the same color pink as her hair, with yellow letters spelling BRAT printed boldly across the front of her chest. A black mini cheerleader-type skirt accompanied the shirt, and the entire outfit was finished off by a black headband decorated with rhinestone flowers. Lara grimaced, but didn’t say anything. Instead, she grabbed her hairbrush and started brushing her hair.

Paintings self portrait

“Bridget . . . Bridget, I’m really sorry I was mean. I would like to be friends”

“So, what are you planning to do today?” Bridget asked, swinging her legs over the edge of the bed.

“Oh, I only just got here. I’m not sure. How about you?”

“Well, I had planned to go shopping with my friends, but I think I’ll take you too and show you the stores.”

Thanks, thought Lara dryly I really appreciate being thought of as a burdensome thing. She knew she was being overly defensive and Bridget was just trying to be nice, but she was grumpy Anyway, she was never good at being polite to people she didn’t like.

“Thanks, but I just realized I have some things I need to do.”

“What kind of things?”

“You know . . . things. I just got here.” It was a lame lie and she knew it.

“Yeah, OK,” muttered Bridget. “I get what you’re saying.”

And without another word, she walked out.

Lara stared after her, then flung herself on her bed and began to read, angry with the preppy girl.

An hour later, Mary came upstairs. “Hello, dear. Why didn’t you come down to breakfast?”

“Uh . . . I . . . I forgot,” Lara murmured, feeling red creep up her face.

“Oh, that’s fine! I’ll just make you something quick if you come downstairs,” Mary told her.

“OK.” Lara was going to tell her about the bagel thing, but changed her mind.

They went downstairs to the kitchen. Warm lights filled the room with yellow cheer. Lara sat down at a circular glass table while Mary bustled around, mostly getting things from the fridge and pantry. When she stopped for a moment she looked straight at Lara.

“When Bridget came downstairs she seemed a little upset. I hope you two weren’t fighting,” she said seriously.

“Oh no. Not at all,” Lara answered hastily Then, to reassure Mary, she asked, “Where is Bridget now?” Probably at the mall, she thought.

“I think she’s in her studio.”

“Her . . . her studio?”

“Yes! My Bridget has quite a talent for art, you know. She did that recently,” she said, pointing to an oil painting above the small glass cabinet with china in it that was opposite Lara. The picture showed a red-haired man in a dark suit, with thin rectangular silver glasses. His soft brown eyes were serious, but compassionate. The painting was all in muted tones. Even the man’s red hair was softer and less vibrant.


Mary’s face saddened. “Yes, yes she did. It’s her dad. He . . . left four months ago.”

Lara’s breath caught in her throat. She hadn’t even noticed. “Is that why you asked me to visit?”

“Well, yes. Not that I wouldn’t have anyway,” replied Mary.

“Where’s the studio?”

“In the garage. The door is the first on the right, down that hall,” replied Mary with a very small smile. Lara walked down the hall and opened the door.

Bridget was there, and painting. Unnoticed, Lara stood watching as a picture began to form on the canvas, shaped by Bridget’s careful strokes. In the painting, she herself was standing in front of a vanity. But in the mirror, instead of her reflection, a sad Bridget gazed back, shoulders slumped, eyes pleading, and mouth turned down at the corners.

Lara took a step towards Bridget, which startled her. She jumped, but no harm came to the painting.

“Bridget . . . Bridget, I’m really sorry I was mean. I would like to be friends, I really would, it’s just that when I saw you I made a mistake. I looked at your clothes and your hair and I thought you were a snob. But then I saw that picture of . . . of your dad, and while looking at it I realized we could still be friends. You could still be a really nice person. I’m really sorry, and, uh, I . . .” She didn’t have anything else to say, so she left it at that.

Paintings paint tools

Bridget nodded, face tight. Something glistened on her cheek, and Lara realized, just like in the old song, they were the tracks of her tears. She shifted uncomfortably.

“So, uh, do you want to go to the mall?”

*          *          *

Amazingly enough, they became friends that moment. That night, Lara wrote a postcard to her mother.

Dear Mom,

I got to Ireland safely. You were right, jet lag is horrible.

My second cousin (the girl, anyway) is named Bridget (I guess you already knew that) and she’s really nice. She’s also a mega-talented artist! You were right about another thing, we’re good friends now. I would write more, but it’s time for bed and the jet lag is calling my name. One thing though; I think I’m going to learn a lot here!

Love, Lara

P. S. You seem to be right about a lot of things!

Paintings Michelle Grifka

Michelle Grifka,12
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Paintings Ashley Burke

Ashley Burke, 12
Cedar Park, Texas

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